Inquiries into the early years of SJI

Saturday, September 21, 2013

American roots music in Belgium: The Golden Glows

The Golden Glows (image from their website)
A few months ago I was doing some research on the song "Willie The Weeper." In my most-recent-entry-but-one you can read how "Willie The Weeper" became "Minnie The Moocher" which retained the instrumentation of "St. James Infirmary" while becoming Cab Calloway's signature song at The Cotton Club, and how parts of "Minnie The Moocher" have sometimes become embedded into renditions of "St. James Infirmary." Anyway, while doing this research I stumbled upon a contemporary version of "Willie The Weeper" on YouTube by a Belgian trio called "The Golden Glows." Consisting of two female vocalists and a male vocalist/guitarist, the Golden Glows lean heavily on vocal harmony, and this has been their mainstay through successive CD releases. They do it well. One of their members, Bram Van Moorhem, recently suggested that if I listen to their three CDs in succession, I shall be able to detect an evolution in their musicianship and sound. I did so, and discovered a second connection between The Golden Glows and "St. James Infirmary."

"Willie The Weeper" is from their first CD, titled A Songbook From The 20s. Their most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, is a tribute to the prison songs collected by Alan Lomax at Parchman Farm (aka Mississippi State Penitentiary) in Sugar Land, Texas in 1947. (The Golden Glows call these Lomax collections "the holiest of holies," and their treatment is both innovative and reverent.) It was 13 years earlier that Alan and his father, John, recorded James "Iron Head" Baker singing "St. James Hospital" - a song that Alan himself recorded and, through some reasoning that I would describe as weird, declared it to be the link between "The Unfortunate Rake" and "Streets of Laredo" and "St. James Infirmary."

In a way, that's beside the point. I can only describe The Golden Glows most recent CD, A Prison Songbook, as a remarkable accomplishment. These songs, while sparsely orchestrated, emphasize - in fine European style - the melodic underpinnings of these songs while incorporating a strong percussive drive that represents the pounding of spades and hoes on the hard ground that the prisoners had to work, without respite, day after day, year after year. While I am fond of all their re-creations I think this, A Prison Songbook, is a wonderful achievement. You can see some videos of their work by clicking here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A cappella SJI: sheet music from Everett Howe

From E. Howe's a cappella version of SJI
(Click to enlarge)
Many years ago I worked with a woman whose son was a math prodigy. When he was in grade school he and a friend would spend recess (for example) determining the height of a pole by calculations based upon the length of its shadow. This is what they preferred to do, what they enjoyed doing, while other kids played baseball or tag. One year he wanted to go to summer camp, to math camp. The questionnaire he had to fill out asked the question "What musical instrument do you play?" Note, the question was not "Do you play a musical instrument?" but "Which instrument do you play?" Which, of course, suggests an intimate correlation between mathematics and music.

Still, there are many mathematicians who are not particularly interested in music. There are those who are interested only in the mathematical problems presented by music, not in the music itself. And there are those who are both born mathematicians and natural musicians.

Which brings me to Everett Howe. Mr. Howe is a mathematician, a graduate of Caltech and of the University of California in Berkeley, who has written papers with titles like, oh, "Characteristic Polynomials of Automorphisms of Hyperelliptic Curves," or "On the Distribution of Frobenius Eigenvalues of Principally-polarized Abelian Varieties." He plays the piano. He is starting to learn clarinet. He sings in an a cappella group. He writes music.

"St. James Infirmary" has been a touchstone for Mr. Howe. He wrote, "My interest in 'St. James Infirmary' led me to arrange a choral a cappella version of the song . . . and, surprisingly enough, the a cappella group that I belong to will be singing this arrangement in October as part of a church service."

Mr. Everett Howe has been kind enough to share the link to his 2013 arrangement of this song, which was first recorded 86 years ago, which is Lord-knows-how-old, and which continues to shift and change well into the 21st century. So, to read the sheet music, here is the link to: Everett Howe's a cappella arrangement of St. James Infirmary. Thank you, Everett.